A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

An evening with justice January 16th, 1999

The organisers of the Breaking of Ramadan Fast with Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, were worried that the event might not be well-attended. It was held on the 16th of January - the Saturday just before the Id Festival holiday marking the end of the fasting month, when many tens of thousands of Kuala Lumpur residents would be making that long trek back to the ‘kampung’ (home village) with their families.

The publicity for the event was also limited - just a simple announcement on the website of ADIL – Wan Azizah’s newly-formed social justice organisation - and a couple of e-mails sent over the various Internet discussion lists. And the word of mouth.

But the organisers needn’t have worried. Tickets for the 1,000 seats available were sold out within three days of the first announcement. When the organisers managed to convince the hotel to squeeze in another 400 seats, even those were sold out.

When I arrived at the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel about half an hour before the breaking of fast, it was already filled with people of all ages. Kids were running about and playing in their finest Malay costume, as though it were already the Id Festival. Everywhere, there were hugs and embraces, handshakes and ‘salams’ - it was more like a family gathering than a meeting of social reformers.

And, indeed, many of us were like family. Spotting a vaguely familiar face in the crowd, I approached a young student whom I then recognised as the young man I helped up when he fell in the Odeon car-park running away from a water cannon last October. "Thanks for that day!" he said as we embraced. He rolled up his sleeve to show me the scars from the bruises he received from the fall, smiling broadly at it as though it were an old war-wound. It was at that point that I realised that this perfect stranger and I had a bond we would share for the rest of our lives - no matter where or when we would meet in the future. 

Even though it was a Breaking of the Fast, we were also joined by non-Muslim friends. One young Chinese gentlemen I met had just returned from his studies overseas. "I read so much about what was happening in our country over the past few months. History was being made and I was thousands of miles away! I just had to be here tonight!" Another young Chinese woman couldn’t get tickets in time. "But I just had to come and try my luck!"

Certainly, for many of us in the Internet community, it was a happy meeting of friends we knew only by their anonymous Hotmail or Yahoo addresses. A fiery Netter I remembered for his angry, passionate articles turned out to be a rather modest retired civil servant with a warm smile and a shy, quiet demeanour. 

I also discovered that I had quite a modest group of ‘fans’ who not only followed my writing on the Net but also took the trouble to go to my personal website to see what I looked like. So it was quite a pleasant surprise to find perfect strangers coming up to me to shake my hand and introduce themselves. Some of them even insisted on getting my autograph and taking their pictures with me, much to my embarrassment. 

Some of them were ‘lurkers’ on the various news groups and discussion lists – people who just anonymously read our postings without comment or reply. Others were fellow writers I had admired for their eloquent views. A few were even people I had crossed swords with on the Net battlefield - and, much to my surprise, they turned out to be quite decent, reasonable individuals in ‘real’ life!

There were other familiar faces. People I’d bumped into at the demonstrations on Jalan TAR or at Anwar’s home on Jalan Setiamurni. Friends in the NGOs and the political parties. Old classmates and co-workers I’d hadn’t seen in years. Even a bus conductor of the No. 12 bus that plies the route between my home and the office! "Abang! Tak sangka kita jumpa sini!" ("Brother! Never thought I’d see you here!") he exclaimed as he came up to me and slapped my back. "Saya dah agak Abang pun penyokong keadilan - saya pernah nampak Abang selalu naik bas pakai reben putih."(I always knew you were supporter of justice - I’d seen you on the bus wearing the white ribbon") Another friend came up to me, happy to see such a good turnout. "I first thought people would be too scared to come. But here we are - out in the open and unafraid."

A lot of the discussion around the lobby focused on the morning’s events when Anwar Ibrahim’s appeal to be released on bail was rejected again by the courts. Bail had been rejected a few weeks earlier on the grounds that Anwar might tamper with witnesses. "Now that the judge has thrown all those sex and glamour witnesses out of the trial, who’s there left except for the police witnesses?" a marketing executive fumed. "Would you tamper with policemen, especially after they’ve admitted beating you up?!"

Someone else added that it was ridiculous that the Court of Appeal Judge Lamin Yunus said shouting by Anwar’s supporters outside the Court was a breach of the peace and was another factor in rejecting bail. "Have you ever heard such a lame excuse?! ‘Kalau hang nak bail, kena diam-diam ya - kalau tidak saya jadi pekak badak’! (‘If you want bail, you’d better keep quiet - otherwise, I’ll go stone deaf!’)"

We shared other little anecdotes from the courthouse over the past few weeks. One executive told the story of the Malay College Old Boys waiting outside the courthouse who handed Anwar Ibrahim his old school tie, which he promptly wore during the trial that day.

Seating was free and I found a table with still a few empty seats. I usually hate going to these hotel dinners where you have to sit with people you don’t know and make trivial small-talk to avoid the embarrassing silence of sitting with strangers. But this evening of different - almost immediately, we were chatting furiously as though we’d known each other for years. Like I said before, we were all like family.

As the guests mingled and chatted at the tables, the MC announced the arrival of various special invited guests as they entered the dining hall. And boy, were they special! First to arrive were Opposition leaders Karpal Singh and Lim Kit Siang. Then Anwar’s defence team arrived - Zainur Zakaria and Christopher Fernando. And it’s not every day that you get to see the fiery Mr Fernando in a bright batik shirt instead of his usual lawyer’s robes. But the loudest applause and cheers were reserved for the host - Datin Seri Wan Azizah. The whole room erupted when she arrived. Almost immediately, her table was swarmed by supporters and well-wishers.

After dinner and prayers, Tuan Haji Mahfuz Haji Omar of Islamic Party, PAS, took the floor. Expressing the support of PAS for ADIL, he commented on Dr Mahathir’s statement a few days earlier that government would capture Kelantan from PAS in the next elections. "Dr Mahathir is daydreaming that he can grab Kelantan from PAS. Tonight, we’re showing him that the Malaysian people intend to grab Malaysia from him!"

Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party struck a deep emotional chord with everyone when he reminded everyone that, because of this morning’s court decision, Anwar couldn’t be with us that evening. "But even if he is not here, his fighting spirit is here with us - together with the spirit of another victim - Lim Guan Eng." Guan Eng, his son, was also languishing in prison, for sedition.

He reminded everyone about why we were all there - justice. "Dato’ Seri Anwar would be here with us - if there was justice. If there was justice, he would now be in the Renaissance Hotel - not Sungai Buloh prison. If there was justice, he would be spending the Id Festival with his family."

As Malaysian People’s Party president Dr Syed Husin Ali took to the floor to speak, someone shouted from the audience "Tanduk Mahathir!" ("Gore Mahathir!"), alluding to PRM’s party symbol, the seladang bull! Syed began by welcoming everyone present ... "those who want justice, those who want total Reformasi!"

The audience stood up and erupted into wild cheers of "Reformasi!" the moment that word was mentioned. A friend turned to me saying "After almost fifteen minutes of speeches, someone’s at last said the "R" word!" 

The hall echoed loudly with the chant of "Reformasi! Reformasi!" for quite some time, as though some pent-up desire was at last released and gushed out of everyone’s lips. I could swear I felt the hotel floor tremble and heard the chandeliers tinkle to the echoes of the sound of that four-month old battle-cry.

"Some people say that we are now living in times of fear," said Syed as soon as the crowd quietened down. "But tonight, I only see courage!" Another resounding chorus of "Reformasi!" erupted. "The only fear I see is from Mahathir and his cronies," he continued. "Mahathir is in fear of losing his throne. And his cronies are in fear of losing their wealth."

But he reminded everyone that reformasi was not just about toppling Mahathir and his cronies. "It is about upholding justice... it is not just about one individual, Dr Mahathir - he only represents the system. And we’ve seen what the system has done to Dato’ Seri Anwar."

He categorically stated that he did not believe a word of the sodomy charges against Anwar. "I should know - I spent 22 months in detention with him in Kamunting Detention camp!"

He ended his speech with a series of cheers. "Hidup keadilan ..." ("Long live justice!"). "Hidup keadilan!" the audience roared in response. "Hidup reformasi ..." "Hidup reformasi!". "Hidup Anwar ..." "Hidup Anwar!". "Jatuh Mahathir..." ("Topple Mahathir!"). "Jatuh Mahathir!!!" the audience cheered repeatedly as Syed left the stage.

But the wildest cheers were reserved for the star speaker - Datin Seri Wan Azizah. She began conveying greetings from Dato’ Seri Anwar and did not express surprise that bail was not granted to him that day. "Let there be no bail - it is only temporary!"

She added that the feeling of warm comradeship, friendship and sympathy tonight was a source of strength to her and her children .." from number 1 to number 6!". She said that her family understood well the experiences of the families of other ISA victims present " ... including Syed’s and Mrs Betty Lim’s..."

"But if you are afraid of risk, don’t even talk about struggle!" At that point, she took the opportunity to welcome the "special" guests present from the Special Branch! 

She also commented on the judges’ statement today that supporters outside the courthouse were creating a public disorder. "When we gather, they call it ‘public disorder’. When we don’t gather, they say ‘Reformasi is dead’! But we know Reformasi is not dead ... this gathering shows that is aliiiive!"

She also had a message for the local media. "Pleeeeaaase! Why do you slander him so?!" Shouts of "Tutup TV3!" ("Close down TV3!") from the audience echoed the hall.

She reminded everyone that ADIL’s struggle was beyond party politics and was for all. "Dr Mahathir has asked us to form a political party. How so very kind of him!" Datin Seri Wan Azizah ended her speech with an ominous warning to Dr Mahathir. "We await for the elections. We await the fate of the Prime Minister"

By the end of her speech, all the 1,400 people in the hall were on their feet chanting "Reformasi!", cheering, shouting, punching their fists in the air, banging the tables - it was a loud storm of jubilation, celebration, hope and determination. 

No sooner had the cheers died down when it again erupted as Anwar’s legal team were invited on-stage to say a few words. After reading all about their fiery speeches in the courtroom, they seemed a little shy and modest speaking to a 1,400-strong ‘gallery’. But their short messages were potent. "You want justice? We’ll give you justice," Zainur promised. Fernando was hopeful: "Justice will prevail. Good will triumph over evil."

Karpal Singh said it all. "In the end, it’s justice for all."

Earlier that evening, I’d stood outside the hotel entrance, reflecting in the cold stillness of the night on all the events of the past few months that had brought us all here, at this place, at this time. Towering close by, lit up like an enormous torch against the velvet night sky, was the Petronas Twin Towers. To some, this was a symbol of our country’s development. To me, it only reminded me of the that day in November when people below it were sprayed with acid and yellow dye and dragged out of its shopping malls by plainclothes policemen and FRU personnel.

I saw some of those same faces this evening. Acid, dye, beatings, arrests, media propaganda - they had all failed to extinguish the determination I had seen in those same faces many months ago. We all met again that evening - in the warmth of friendship and the sharing of a common, just cause. Our spirits were unbroken, unafraid and more determined than ever to continue what we had begun last September to its inevitable conclusion.

"In the end, it’s justice for all."